“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is a story collected by the Brothers Grimm. Andrew Lang also collected a French version of this story in his Red Fairy Book, and you can read it here. Marianna Mayer has done a beautiful picture book of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Rachel Isadora has reimagined the story in an African setting.
The story tells of 12 princesses, sisters, who sleep in a locked room every night, but wear through their dancing slippers every night, too. Eventually, unable to persuade the sisters to tell what they are doing with their nights, the king offers a reward for anyone who can find out: the hand of one daughter in marriage, and a portion of his kingdom. In some tellings of the story, anyone who tried would have three days to accomplish it and be killed if he failed, but some versions finesse this classic fairy tale detail.
Princes try and fail, but then a commoner, either a poor young farm boy or an old soldier, gives it a try. He has heard about the opportunity, usually from an old woman in the woods, who also gives him a hint of how to succeed. In the Grimm version, the princesses are drugging the princes, so all the new suitor has to do is avoid the evening wine, and he is able to follow the princesses. He manages to become invisible as well (the mechanism varies according to which version you read, but most often the old woman has given him a cloak of invisibility), but the youngest sister is aware of his presence. She tells the others, but they will not take her concerns seriously. The young man (or soldier) is able to carry back tokens of the princesses’ nightly visits to an underground castle where they dance with twelve princes.
When the princesses are confronted with these pieces of evidence, they admit that they have been out dancing in a magical castle, the king is satisfied, and the suitor chooses his bride.
This story was one of the more obscure fairy tales, but then there was a Barbie movie version, Barbie in The 12 Dancing Princesses, so it may be familiar to young students. Bring out your Venn diagram and compare the Barbie version to the written ones, if you have enough students who are familiar with it — there are lots of differences.
You can find this story in many forms:
- K.Y. Craft and Marianna Mayer have done a beautiful picture book of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, based on Lang’s version.
- Ruth Sanderson has a beautiful version.
- We also like Debbie Allen’s Brothers of the Knight, in which a Harlem preacher wonders about his sons’ worn-out shoes. There was a stage production of this, and the soundtrack is available.
- Storynory has a recording.
- Check out a dozen versions from across Europe.
This is a good story for reading aloud and for sequencing, but we have not found it very good for acting out. Consider having students draw the episodes for a visual retelling instead.
- How about working on dozens and the twelves family? Use shoe cutouts to make basic operations flashcards for the twelves family, or as manipulatives for counting.
- Barbie shoes also make fine manipulatives for sorting and counting if you use the story with young children. Grab a muffin tin or other sorting container to keep from having wee shoes all over the classroom.
- Challenge students to work out a budget for a family with twelve daughters.
- Some word problems naturally suggest themselves as you read this story: how many total slippers would the king have to pay for over the course of a year, if all twelve princesses wore out a pair of shoes each night? How much more weight would the youngest princess’s prince have had to row the final night than he usually did, and how much weight would it be altogether — and how close an estimate could we come up with, without knowing the exact weights of the people or of the boat? Algebraic thinking would be key here.
- In The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works, author Roger Highfield suggests that Harry’s cloak of invisibility, the descendant of the cloak in most versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and similar stories, could be powered by lack of attention. Highfield reports numerous experiments that show that people don’t notice things that they aren’t expecting to see — including such things as a person in a gorilla costume on a basketball court. Read the passage with or to the class, and set up your own attempts to replicate the experiments.
- NPR reports another possibility for that cloak. This podcast makes an excellent listening practice passage. Read this article about it, too, and synthesize the information from the two sources for fuller understanding.
- The youngest daughter noticed the interloper with other senses, even though he was invisible. Bring in your lessons on the five senses here.
- Try out some consumer science by testing what kind of shoes could be completely worn out by one night of dancing. Students can devise an experiment, using cast-off, outgrown shoes to test different kinds of movement and circumstances to see what is the hardest on shoe soles, or what kind of sole wears out the fastest. If possible, include Tai Chi shoes, ballet slippers, and other unusual choices in the experiment. Use this project to work on science process skills, and display the charts or graphs students use to show their results.
- The first attempts to find out where the princesses are going to dance at night are foiled (in many versions of the story) by drugged wine. In fact, the Norwegian version of the story, “The Danced-Out Shoes,” has as its moral the reminder that one can be invisible if he goes among the drunken. If lessons on drugs are coming up in your plans, here’s an opportunity to integrate them.
- Some versions of the story say that the princesses are growing pale and bad tempered from lack of sleep, and that this is why the king is concerned about them. Researchers have found that lack of sleep has negative effects on everything from skin tone to heart health to brain function. Study the effects of lack of sleep with Harvard Med School. Read about teen sleep and school schedules here.
- Anne Sexton’s poem “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a fine choice for secondary level poetry study. Joseph Stanton’s tells the story from the point of view of the soldier. A compare and contrast study of the two poems would be perfect.
- In most versions of the story, the successful suitor has a cloak of invisibility. “What would you do if you had a cloak of invisibility?” could be a fun writing prompt.
- In Mayer and Craft’s picture book version, the successful suitor is described as “a dreamer,” someone who has big dreams about his future. Challenge students to dream big about their own futures, and to write about their dreams.
- The successful suitor is a great example of problem solving. Analyze his approach in the version or versions of the story you read. Make a flow chart to show the process he used. Would the students have approached things differently?
- Older students can read an essay that explores some of the moral issues.
- In some tellings of the story, the king specifies that anyone who fails in the quest to find out what the girls are doing within three days will be killed. Is this specification counter-productive for the king’s main goal of learning what his daughters are up to? If so, why is it so common in fairy tales? If not, what benefit does the stipulation offer? (Note that in those tellings of the story in which this feature is found, it doesn’t usually seem to bother the princesses or affect their behavior at all.)